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Hogan v. County of Lewis

United States District Court, N.D. New York

July 14, 2017

MARK HOGAN; ELIZABETH M. HOGAN; MARK HOGAN and ELIZABETH M. HOGAN as Guardians and o/b/o their minor children, J.H. and I.H.; DENNIS B. OKUDINANI as Guardian and on behalf of D.O., Plaintiffs,
v.
COUNTY OF LEWIS, NEW YORK; SERGEANT RYAN LEHMAN, in his individual and official capacity; DEPUTY BRETT CRONEISER, in his individual and official capacity; DAVID VANDEWATER; FRANK ROSE; RUSSELL FALTER; KATHY WILSON; LEANNE MOSER, in her individual and official capacity as District Attorney for the County of Lewis, New York; CALEB PETZOLDT, in his individual and official capacity as an Assistant District Attorney for the County of Lewis, New York; and JOHN DOES AND JANE DOES, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION, ORDER, AND JUDGMENT

          BARBARA J. ROTHSTEIN UNITED STAPES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Mark and Elizabeth Hogan brought the present action in July 2011, alleging New York state property law claims against Defendants David Vandewater, Frank Rose, Russell Falter, and Kathy Wilson.[1] Plaintiffs have two remaining claims: Plaintiffs allege that Vandewater interfered with their easement to certain lake lot properties, and that all Defendants created or engaged in various incidents amounting to private nuisances. This matter came before the Court for a bench trial between June 12 and June 16, 2017. The parties were represented by counsel. The Court heard testimony from the following witnesses: Plaintiffs Mark and Elizabeth Hogan (hereinafter "Hogan"); the Hogans' daughter, Ithaca Grace Hogan; the Hogans' family friends, John Sakowich and Denny Okudinani; and the Hogans' expert surveyor, Stephen Moncrief. The Court additionally heard testimony from: Defendants David Vandewater, Frank Rose, Kathy Wilson, and Russell Falter; and Defendants' expert surveyor, Duane Frymire. Having reviewed the testimony and all exhibits entered into evidence together with the parties' briefs and all relevant materials, the Court finds and rules as follows:

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         This case represents the latest skirmish in a continuing saga of disputes between neighboring property owners of subdivided lots within Great Lot 24 in the Town of Greig, New York. Great Lot 24 encompasses over 175 acres of wooded, recreational land. Great Lot 24 also includes two spring-fed lakes: Hiawatha Lake 1 and Hiawatha Lake 2. In 1927, Great Lot 24 was owned by Zoltan Mihalyi. Mihalyi, together with the help of engineer Royal B. Smith, subdivided Great Lot 24 into 41 lake lots surrounding Hiawatha Lake 1, and 36 lake lots surrounding Hiawatha Lake 2. To memorialize the subdivision, Smith drew two plans or maps: "Map 42, " which was filed with Lewis County in 1927 ("the 1927 Map"), and "Map 180, " which was filed with the County in 1928 ("the 1928 Map"). Pis.' Ex. 11; Defs.' Ex. 2. Both Maps include identical drawings of the Lakes, and identical measurements of the lake lots' side lines. The only differences between the two Maps is that the 1928 Map adds five feet more to the lots' lake-frontage; and it depicts the sale of one lake lot.

         The parties own the following relevant property. Defendant Vandewater has owned Great Lot 24 since 1996. Vandewater additionally owns certain lake lots on Hiawatha Lake 1, though his cabin sits in a wooded area approximately one mile away from the southwest corner of Lake 1. The Hogans have owned property in Great Lot 24 since 1992. On Lake Hiawatha 1, the Hogans own Lots 6-7, 10-14, and 19-22. Lots 6 and 7 are vacant, though the Hogans' children historically erected a tent there. The Hogans' cabin sits on Lots 12 and. 13. Lots 19 through 22 have, since their purchases between 2005 and 2010, remained vacant and unimproved. Defendant Rose has owned Lots 23 and 24 since 2002 and 2003, respectively. On his lots, Rose built a cabin and other small structures. Defendants Falter and Wilson have owned Lots 34 through 38 since 2001.

         II. THE INTERFERENCE WITH EASEMENT CLAIM

         In an earlier case, West v. Hogan v. Vandewater, CA2006-000535 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. April 7, 2010) ("the West action"), the Hogans and Vandewater[2] reached a stipulation as to the Hogans right of way to their Lots 22, 21, and 19 that was later memorialized in the court's order resolving that portion of the dispute. Specifically, in an order filed on April 7, 2010, Judge Merrell ordered that the location of the right of way for the Hogans' Lots 22, 21, and 19 is:

[A]long the common right of way from Chase Lake Road as it proceeds along the east side of Hiawatha Lake 1 and then proceeds in a clockwise direction around Hiawatha Lake 1 to that right of way's intersection with the southeasterly corner of Lot 23, thence along the back lot lines of Lots 19-23, at a width of 12 feet from those back lot lines, terminating at the northerly lot line of Lot 19.[3]

         Order and J. Upon Verdict ("the West Order") at 5-6, Pis.' Ex. 26. The parties and the court believed at the time that they had resolved the issue of the easement. Unfortunately that was not the case. A dispute arose as to where the back line of Rose's Lot 23 was located. This dispute serves as the basis of the Hogans.' interference with easement claim against Vandewater as Vandewater's Great Lot 24 abuts the back lot line of Rose's Lot 23, and thus the Hogans' easement would necessarily be across Vandewater's Great Lot 24.[4]

         Following the West Order, Vandewater, using signs and wooden posts, marked where he believed the back line of Lot 23 was located: 151 feet away from the shoreline. Vandewater believed this to be the correct location because Smith's 1927 and 1928 Maps both depict that the southeasterly corner of Lot 23 sits 151 feet from its shoreline. From that back lot line location, Vandewater marked a 12-foot wide route to Lots 22, 21, and 19. Flogan, however, believes that the easement is located approximately 36 feet to the northeast, through land that Rose has historically used as his driveway and back yard. Immediately after the West Order, Hogan began travelling through this route, coming in close contact with Rose's cabin and other structures on Lot 23, crossing what Rose believed to be his property. Hogan alleges that Vandewater incorrectly marked and otherwise "blocked" the Hogans' easement, thereby giving rise to the interference with easement claim.

         A. Legal Standards

         An easement entitles one owner of land to the use of another's land for a limited purpose. See, e.g., Nature Conservancy v. Congel, 689 N. Y.S.2d 317, 319 (App. Div. 1999). The easement holder (in this case Hogan) owns the dominant tenement. The easement grantor (in this case Vandewater) owns the servient tenement, and retains "a possessory interest in the land, " which the grantor can use "for any purpose consistent with the dominant owner's or grantee's enjoyment of the easement." Sutera v. Go Jokir, Inc., 86 F.3d 298, 302 (2d Cir. 1996) (citing Bakeman v. Talbot, 31 N.Y. 366, 370 (1865)). "Although no affirmative duty is imposed on the servient owner, " Sutera, 86 F.3d at 302, "[t]he servient tenement is prohibited from unreasonably interfering with the rights of the [dominant tenement] to use the easement." Green v. Mann, 237 A655 N.Y.S.2d 627, 628-29 (App. Div. 1997). To demonstrate that interference is unreasonable, plaintiffs must prove that a grantor-defendant "substantially interfere[d]" with the easement holder's "reasonable use and enjoyment of [the] easement." LeBaron v. DLL & B, LLC, 826 N.Y.S.2d 627, 627-28 (App. Div. 2006); see also Wilson v. Palmer, 644 N.Y.S.2d 872, 872-73 (App. Div. 1996). Whether interference is unreasonable is a question of fact. See, e.g., Green, 655 N.Y.S.2d at 628-29; Meyerson v. Mele, 277 N.Y.S.2d 781, 784 (Sup. Ct. 1962), aff'd, 240N.Y.S.2d 934 (App. Div. 1963); Brearton v. Fina, 155 N.Y.S.2d 399, 405-06 (Sup. Ct. 1956). The fact-finder's analysis depends primarily on the specific language of the grant of the easement, "aided where necessary by any circumstances tending to manifest the intent of the parties." Marsh v. Hogan, 867 N.Y.S.2d 786, 787-88 (App. Div. 2008) (internal quotation omitted); accord Meyerson, 227 N.Y.S.2d at 784; Brearton, 155 N.Y.S.2d at 405-06.

         B. The Easement Location

         The Court turns first to the location of the Hogans' easement. The Court begins with an examination of the relevant deeds to Great Lot 24, Lake Lot 23, and the neighboring parcels. Whether the 12-foot easement is part of Great Lot 24, or whether it is part of what is presently Rose's Lot 23, depends on the location of the rear boundary line of Rose's Lot 23. Vandewater's deed to Great Lot 24 conveys, in relevant part, all land except for "all camp lots laid out around [the Hiawatha Lakes], as surveyed and mapped by Royal B. Smith, " whose maps are "on file in the Lewis County Clerk's Office[.]" Defs.' Ex. 5. Rose's deeds to Lot 23 and Lots 24, respectively-as well as Hogans deed to Lots 22 and 21, and their deed to Lot 19-similarly describe the conveyed parcels according to Smith's 1927 Map. Rose's Deed (Lot 23), Defs.' Ex. 3; Rose's Deed (Lot 24), Deis.' Ex. 4; Beadore to Hogan deed (Lots 22 and 21), Deed Book 2006, Page 1881, Lewis County New York Records; Helmer to Hogan deed (Lot 19), Deed Book 2005, Page 320, Lewis County New York Records.[5] "Property may [ ] be described by reference to a map or plat on file in the register's office. When such resort is made, the filed map must be taken as part of the deed and explanatory notes contained on the map become part of the description." Town of Brookhaven v. Dinos, 431 N.Y.S.2d 567, 572 (App. Div. 1980), aff'd, 429 N.E.2d 830 (N.Y. 1981) (internal citations omitted). Given that these deeds all reference Smith's Maps-and only Smith's Maps-the Court finds that the location of the back lot line of Lot 23 is determined according Smith's 1927 and 1928 Maps. See, e.g., Town of Fowler v. Parow, 42 N.Y.S.3d 416, 418 (App. Div. 2016) ("[A] deed must be construed according to the intent of the parties and, [ ] a court is to give effect and meaning, to the degree possible, to each and every phrase or part of the deed." (internal quotation omitted)).

         The parties presented the Court with Smith's 1927 and 1928 Maps. The Court noted the following: (1) the side lot line of Lot 23 is depicted as 151 feet from the Lot's shoreline on both Maps; (2) the side lot line distances of Lots 24 through 19 on Hiawatha Lake 1 are identical between the two Maps; (3) the side lot lines are the only ones that, in addition to having set distances, also contain bearings, or angles represented by degrees; (4) the back lot line distances of Lots 24 through 19 on Hiawatha Lake 1 are identical between the two Maps; (5) Smith's 1927 Map provides for 45 feet of lake-frontage for the lots surrounding Hiawatha Lake 1, while his 1928 Map provides for 50 feet of lake-frontage; (6) the sizes of the Lakes are nevertheless identical between the two Maps (i.e., the outermost ring representing the shoreline of each Lake is in the identical location); (7) Smith's 1927 Map contains six "rings" around the perimeter of the Lakes, while his 1928 Map contains eight such rings; and (8) the 1928 Map indicates that Mihalyi sold one lot, Lot 8, on which two iron pipes, or "monuments, " were set along the Lot's shoreline-but not along its back line.

         Lhe parties presented the Court with three surveys each purporting to provide the intent behind Smith's maps.[6] The Hogans offered Stephen Moncrief s 2003 survey of Rose's Lot 23, which Rose did not file with the Clerk's Office, as well as Moncrief s 2005 survey of the Hogans' Lots 22 and 21. Pis.' Exs. 14, 28. Defendants offered Duane Frymire's 2014 survey of Rose's Lots 23 and 24, which Rose filed with the Lewis County Clerk's Office in 2015. Defs.' Ex. 6. Both Moncrief and Frymire testified at trial. The experts agree that Rose's Lot 23 has a depth of 151 feet. According to Moncrief, however, the side lot line of Lot 23 spans just 114.68 feet from the existing shoreline of Lake 1. In other words, Moncrief maintains, Rose owns 151 feet worth property, but 36.32 of those feet are presently located under the water of Hiawatha Lake 1. According to Frymire, the side lot line of Lot 23 spans 151 feet from the existing shoreline of Hiawatha Lake 1.

         Moncrief does not contest that Smith's Maps depict that the side lot lines for the lake lots (including Lot 23) run from the shoreline of Hiawatha Lake 1 to a back lot line that abuts Great Lot 24. Nor does Moncrief contest that in 1927 and in 1928, Lot 23 was meant to have a depth of 151 feet. Nevertheless, Moncrief maintains that the current side lot line of Lot 23 spans only 114.68 from the existing shoreline of Hiawatha Lake 1. Moncrief offers two theories to support his survey results, i.e., that 36 feet of the lots are underwater. First, Moncrief testified that certain surveyors theorize that at some point since 1928, some persons manually "raised" Lake 1 using 12-inch wooden boards, thereby increasing the overall size of the Lake. Second, Moncrief testified that other surveyors claim that Smith drew the Lakes incorrectly. Moncrief himself subscribes to the second theory: that Smith drew Lake 1 "incorrectly." As a result, Moncrief maintains, Rose's current ownership is 36.32 feet underwater. In short, Moncrief testified, he believes Smith's depiction of the waterline is incorrect and the "solution" is that the lots extend into the water. The Court notes, however, that 150 feet is the smallest side lot line that Smith drew on either Map. It does not follow, therefore, that Smith would have intended for any of his lots to be as shallow as 114.68 feet.

         Moncrief further maintains that the outer perimeter of lake lots-and not the lots' individual depths-was of paramount importance to Smith. Thus, in conducting his survey, Moncrief first "solved" the outer perimeter of the lake lots, and then "la[id] out" the rest of the subdivision. Moncrief did not explain, however, how he "solved" this perimeter given that Smith did not provide bearings for the back lot lines.[7] It takes both distances and bearings to define any particular line. Smith provided distances and bearings only for the side lot lines, which themselves provide the lots' depth measurements.

         Moreover, "[i]n determining the location of property boundaries, natural landmarks and artificial monuments take precedence over mere metes and bounds descriptions." Brown v. Ames,735 N.Y.S.2d 664, 665 (App. Div. 2002) (internal quotation omitted). The only natural landmarks and artificial monuments depicted in Smith's Maps are Hiawatha Lakes 1 and 2, and the shoreline pins set on Lot 8, respectively. Accordingly, Moncrief s contentions are incongruous both with Smith's clear intention that the lots contain a certain lake frontage and be of a certain depth, and contrary to established New York norms. See id.; Zelnik Really, Inc. v. York,566 N.Y.S.2d 752, 753 ...


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